The so-called rise of “strongman politics” is nothing new and is by no means surprising. If Western media, activists, and policymakers are interested in how one combats and recovers from the world’s modern strongmen, they should focus on the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe on July 30.
For context, the southern African nation is about half the size of Texas (in square miles and population). However, Texans are on average 50 times wealthier than Zimbabweans. The former dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, was recently removed from power at the age of 94 after attempting to engineer a transition of power to his second wife, Grace Mugabe (age 52). The military coup that removed Robert Mugabe, led by current President Emmerson Mnangagwa (age 75), was later deemed a “voluntary transition” by the country’s courts. This is part of a common trend in African strongman dictatorships from Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Zimbabwe perfectly illustrates the confusing mess that some have called “transitology,” or the process of transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. In a spectrum from dictatorship to democracy, the Mugabe regime was what some experts call a “personalist-party” regime, where power is concentrated in one individual (Robert Mugabe) and wielded through a political party (Mugabe’s political party, the ZANU-PF). Outside of Africa, China is a prominent example of this arrangement, but many others fit the bill.
With the removal of Mugabe (which I called for shortly before it happened), new elections were called. International observers have been invited to watch, and the Zimbabwean government has made good faith efforts to increase voter transparency. There is now an open window through which Western governments and media could support Zimbabwe’s quest for a transition to democracy.
If Zimbabwe is to make the transition, it will take time. A lot of it. According to political science research, it will likely take at least two peaceful transitions of power through elections (in which ZANU-PF does not win) to solidify a transition. Recent transitions in Liberia and Mexico exemplify this theory. It will also take a growing economy and enhanced prosperity. Specifically, successful transitions are associated with a GDP per capita greater than $14,000. This is a tall order, but one that democratic rule of law can catalyze.
And there are signs of hope. First, because Mugabe hyperinflated the currency, the country has already effectively “dollarized,” making it easier for Western firms to invest in Zimbabwe’s future. Second, since moving to DC, I have met many Zimbabweans who are some of the most optimistic, smart, and entrepreneurial people I know. They are genuinely excited about the future, and it’s infectious. Research also indicates that such diaspora can have a significant, positive impact on the development of their home countries’ democratic institutions.
The road to democracy remains fraught with obstacles, and nobody can solve them but the Zimbabwean people themselves. However, we can assist them in their struggle by promoting a democratic process — not a particular outcome — through Western media and foreign policy. Doing so could have a moralizing effect that provides more bang for the buck than any direct foreign assistance and avoids undermining a candidate by allowing them to be branded a “Western imperialist.”
Nothing about the Zimbabwean transition will be easy or inevitable. It will face setbacks at every turn. But with moral support for the democratic process (again, not a particular outcome), Zimbabwe could set its own example for the world in how a state recovers from decades of “strongman” destruction.